Upgrading is an obligation of any self-respecting PC geek. It’s an affirmation of your thirst for power, a healthy rejection of the status quo. Upgrading is an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s always a way to improve your rig. You may have the funds for premium parts—lucky you. We’ll tell you exactly what those parts are. But even if your means are more modest, there are affordable parts in every major component category that can breathe new life into an aged PC.
Regardless of your financial situation, you must address some important questions before embarking on an upgrade. First, you need to honestly assess your rig’s merits. You shouldn’t waste money upgrading your PC if it still sports an AGP slot or a pre-AM2 Athlon 64 motherboard. The question you should ask yourself is whether it’s more cost effective to gut the machine and replace its primary components—motherboard, CPU, memory, and videocard—than it is to do a piecemeal retrofit. If you look at your rig and decide to build new, check out our full build-a-pc guide, but if you’re ready to proceed with an upgrade, click to find out how!
Intel’s Core i7 is everything the company said it would be: fast, furious, and even inexpensive. Those with an eye toward extreme computing should settle for nothing less than Intel’s 3.2GHz Core i7-965 Extreme Edition (www.intel.com). It demolishes Intel’s Core 2 Extreme QX9770 and does one of those Jedi cut-you-in-half tricks to AMD’s best, the Phenom X4 9950 BE. With its integrated memory controller, tri-DDR3 support, Hyper-Threading, and Turbo mode, the chip is simply untouchable at encoding tasks, or anything else that will exploit the eight threads available to it.
But if a grand is a little too rich for your blood, take heart. Intel already has a pretty darn good budget chip based on the Core i7: the 2.66GHz Core i7-920. It outperforms the 2.83GHz Core 2 Quad Q9550—and costs less, too! One caveat for true budget hounds: The Core i7 requires an LGA1366 board, not to mention three sticks of DDR3 RAM for optimal performance, which significantly adds to the expenditure.
If you don’t want to go that far with your CPU upgrade, Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6600 ($185) gets you quad-core performance that’s compatible with most modern Intel motherboards.
Quick, what’s the difference between name-brand RAM from respected manufacturers and the generic stuff you get after sorting by lowest price? Blue screens, my friends. While people tend to treat RAM like it’s all the same, it really isn’t. That’s why we’ve long recommended that when you buy RAM, you first consult your motherboard’s QVL (Qualified Vendor List) and then reach for name-brand sticks. Name brands are especially important if you intend to overclock the crap out of your memory. Many high-frequency modules require a ton of voltage, which tends to drastically shorten the life of the memory. Buying a name-brand product means good warranty support, which could come in handy.
How much RAM should you run today? For a 32-bit OS, 2GB is the minimum. For higher-end configs, consider 4GB on Phenom and Core 2 platforms and 6GB with your 64-bit Vista install on Core i7.
We admit that it’s pretty difficult to recommend an extreme AMD chip when the company’s absolute top-end CPU sells for a measly $175 bucks. Hell, it costs less than Intel’s two-year-old bottom-end Core 2 Quad Q6600. Still, we understand that some folks are vehemently opposed to Intel CPUs purely on religious grounds. For you AMD diehards, we wholeheartedly recommend the 2.6GHz Phenom X4 9950 Black Edition (www.amd.com). Based on the tried-and-true AM2+ platform, the CPU uses DDR2 RAM, which is cheaper than air; plus, there’s a possibility that the new AM3/DDR3 CPUs will also work with the platform.
So what about the really hardcore budget shoppers? You know, like that friend of yours who, when you suggest splitting an order of fries, actually counts the fries out. Well, first we’d say, dude, just get the X4 9950 BE, you cheap bastard. But then again, he did actually tear the last fry in half, so he would be happy to step down to the 2.1GHz tri-core Phenom X3 8450 ($105) if it could save him a few bucks. Yeah, it’s likely a quad-core washout, but your friend doesn’t care. It’s like getting a scratched and dented fridge—it’s not pretty, but it still keeps the Diet Coke cold.
There’s simply no excuse for making due with an old, outdated optical drive while you wait to see what happens on the Blu-ray front. With HD DVD out of the way, it’s time to accept Blu-ray for what it is. And if you like the idea of storing high-def video or large quantities of data on disc, our top pick is LG’s GBW-H20L (www.lge.com). With a 6x BD-R write rating, the drive fills a 25GB disc in approximately 20 minutes, even when using 2x media. DVD writes are also speedy at 16x.
If Blu-ray’s not your bag, step up to Samsung’s new SH-S223 DVD burner (www.samsung.com). The SATA drive breaks our Lab record by writing 4.38GB of data to a DVD+R disc in less than five minutes, thanks to its zippy 22x write speed.
There’s never been a better time to upgrade your videocard, whether you’ve got just a couple hundred bucks or a cool grand burning a hole in your pocket.
Splurgers on the prowl for a killer single card should check out any of the Radeon 4870 X2 boards. We particularly like Powercolor’s card (www.powercolor.com) but all of the X2 boards shipping today are essentially the same, with the same clock speeds, the same memory configuration, and the same 800 shader units on each GPU. The best thing about the X2? The board enables high-resolution gaming at 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 while taking up just a single slot—and without requiring a 1200W power supply.
So what about multicard configs? We always recommend upgrading to the fastest single card you can afford. The only time to buy two (or more) cards is if you’re buying the fastest cards available.
Budget buyers will get much satisfaction from Visiontek’s Radeon HD 4850 (www.visiontek.com), which pairs an 800-shader-unit GPU with 512MB of GDDR3 memory for killer performance at resolutions common to 22-inch panels. We were able to crank up detail in Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 while running our 4850 at 1680x1080. That’s pretty amazing for a card in this price range.
Gateway’s 30-inch XHD3000 monitor (www.gateway.com) won us over with its ability to play HDCP-encumbered content at its native resolution. But it’s color that counts, and the monitor’s deep black and clear, distinct grayscales sealed the deal for us; the panoply of inputs (single- and dual-link DVI, HDMI, Component, Composite, S-Video, VGA, six USB 2.0 ports, audio inputs for all video inputs) merely adds to our excitement. We originally reviewed this monitor more than a year ago, but when something continues to outperform the competition, we see no need to change for change’s sake.
At the budget end of the spectrum, Envision’s G2219w1 (www.envisiondisplay.com) provides exceptional image quality at a reasonable price.
Hard drives are getting bigger and cheaper all the time, which suits us just fine, as you can never, ever have too many—provided you have enough SATA connections, of course.
Users looking for the ultimate storage upgrade must choose between raw speed and enormous capacity. Intel’s 80GB X-25M solid-state drive (www.intel.com) produces, by far, the fastest single-drive read speeds we’ve ever seen, topping 200MB/s in sustained reads. And though its write speeds are nothing to write home about (which is typical of multilevel cell SSDs), they’re not terrible, either. And the added reliability of a solid-state drive (no moving parts, no noise, less heat generation) is a bonus, too.
If capacity is your priority, we have even better news. The 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 (www.seagate.com) smashes the terabyte barrier with panache—it’s nearly as fast as a terabyte drive but has half again the storage space, and it can be found for less than $200.
Shoot, if money is no object, why not get both? Load your OS and some apps onto the X-25M, and use the Seagate drive for storage and backup. Sure, it’ll set you back about $800 for the duo, but that’s what makes it an extreme option.
Budget-conscious users, fortunately, can still stay in the game. Seagate’s 500GB Barracuda 7200.11 (www.seagate.com) is fast and roomy. And half a terabyte for less than a C-note is nothing to sneeze at. It’s the drive of choice in all our budget-building guides.
If money’s no issue, CoolIT’s Peltier cooler, the Freezone Elite (www.coolitsystems.com), is the product to have. It chilled our test system twice as much as a standard stock cooler on both an idle and full-burn CPU, crushing the best air and water coolers we’ve tested. The Freezone Elite is expensive, but you will not find a chillier solution!
We’ve been big fans of Arctic Cooling’s Alpine 7 Pro (www.arctic-cooling.com) on the budget end, as it matches the performance of the best coolers we’ve tested when a CPU is running idle. It’s not quite as powerful on full-throttle CPUs, but it still outperforms a typical Intel air cooler by nearly 10 degrees—that’s quite an upgrade for the price.
Six Drives. Two RAID Arrays. No Mercy
Our ultimate fantasy storage setup incorporates two RAID arrays with six drives total. Raw speed is the goal of the first array: a 160GB RAID 0 array using two 80GB Intel X-25M SSDs. We’ll run this one using the motherboard’s integrated RAID controller.
For the second array, we use an Adaptec 5405 RAID controller (www.adaptec.com) to create a RAID 1+0 array (also called RAID 10), which combines the speed of RAID 0 striping with the redundancy of RAID 1 mirroring. We’ll use a whopping four 1.5TB Seagate Barracudas to achieve 3TB of storage that can tolerate up to two disc failures before data is lost.
Going over the top with videocards used to be easy, just buy the two fastest cards and drop them into one machine. Unfortunately, achieving ultimate performance is more complex these days—you have to choose between three GeForce GTX 280 cards in SLI or a pair of dual-GPU Radeon 4870 X2 boards in CrossFire.
We pitted three overclocked EVGA GeForce GTX 280s (the FTW edition) against a pair of stock-clocked 4870 X2 boards and the results were surprising. While the 4870 X2s won a few benchmarks, the clincher was Crysis. Because the game can take advantage of only three GPUs, the CrossFire setup’s fourth GPU lays fallow, giving the edge
to the trio of GTX 280s for uber-extreme gaming performance!
Bigger, Badder Broadband
The U.S. lags far behind most developed countries in Internet speeds and prices.
But if you’ve got the dough, and you’re fortunate enough to live in one of a few test markets in the nation, you might be able to get download speeds of up to 50Mbps.
If you live in New England or the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, you can get your hands on Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.0 “wideband,” which will get you up to 50Mbps down and 10Mbps up, for only $140 a month!
Verizon’s fiber-optic FIOS service offers similar service for similar pricing (albeit with 20Mbps uploads), but also lacks wide deployment.